There is a race going on within the Steelers organization.  A race that could define the legacy of several key members of the club.  Kevin Colbert’s quest to rebuild the team’s defense while his franchise quarterback is still relevant is nearing fruition.  The problem is Colbert, and the rest of the team, may be running out of time.  Can the young talented players they have drafted over the past few seasons mature before Ben Roethlisberger retires?  It’s a question that may have to be answered as soon as after this upcoming season.  It’s a timeline the Steeler’s front office never imagined they’d have to deal with, and it may not be enough time.

In 2014 Ben Roethlisberger signed his new 4 year contract with the Steelers that would take him through the 2019 season.  Plenty of time for the team to do what they do best, rebuild the defense through the draft.  The process had already begun in the 2013 draft, when Colbert drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round and traded up to get safety Shamarko Thomas.  The rebuild was off to a rocky start to say the least.  Neither player ever made an impact as a starter, and both are no longer with the club.  Things got much better during the 2014 draft when the team selected Ryan Shazier in the first, and Stephon Tuitt in the second rounds respectively.  The run on early draft picks continued through the 2017 draft, netting gems like Bud Dupree, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, and now TJ Watt.  It’s an impressive group that Colbert should be commended for.  Surely by the 2018 season, this defense will be improved to the point where they will go from a weakness, to a definite strength.  The plan was going perfectly even with the setback of the 2013 draft.  Then it started happening.

The subtle hints started before the 2016 season.  Ben Roethlisberger began letting people know that retirement was not far away for him.  Then after a disappointing 2017, Big Ben was quoted as saying he wouldn’t give a commitment to come back and was seriously considering hanging it up.  While nobody inside or out of the organization really believed he would retire before the upcoming year, the Steelers must come to grips that any season going forward could very well be Ben’s last.  Once he does decide to retire, the race is over……end of story.

So now the question is whether the defense is ready to take the next step to at least above average in order to get the team over the hump to a Super Bowl.  Anyone who watched the AFC Championship objectively would say the have quite a way to go.  Facing their biggest test by far after weeks of playing mediocre quarterbacks, the defense was exposed badly by Tom Brady and the Patriots.  This young defense needs more time to become anywhere close to the dominant defenses Steeler’s fans are used to.  The good news is that maybe they don’t have to be great, or even very good for that matter.  The return of Martavis Bryant, along with a fully healthy offense should be good enough to overcome even an average defense.  The way this offense can score, the defense should be playing with a lead more often than not.  That in turn could result in big seasons for pass rushers Bud Dupree and TJ Watt.  The entire unit will in fact benefit from the high-powered offense, thereby making them better almost by default.  That, and the expected improvement with another year of experience may just be enough to get Pittsburgh where it wants to be.

Ben Roethlisberger has shortened the race quite a bit more then the Steelers had imagined.  The five or so year plan to rebuild the defense may have only one year left to go.  In the end, as it probably always was, it will come down to the play of Ben Roethlisberger as to whether or not this team wins it’s 7th Super Bowl title.  The race to see if the defense remains to be seen, but Big Ben and the offense will ultimatley decide the Steeler’s fate in 2017.